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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why the duopoly should help publishers drive subscriptions

June 22, 2017 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

A growing number of publishers – non-profit and for-profit – have pushed into subscriptions, memberships and donations. However, it’s been difficult to motivate the big drivers of digital content consumption – namely Facebook and Google – to help push payments for publishers.

There are good reasons for this: The tech giants don’t have an inherent reason to drive subscriptions or put up walls between their unfettered platforms and paid content. But if they truly want to support quality journalism and the good content that delivers so much engagement on their platforms, then it’s important they put time and resources into supporting these publishers.

It is also a matter of principle. If the duopoly in online advertising is going to vacuum up all the online ad growth, then the least they could do is throw publishers a life-line by pushing some people into subscription funnels. And for smaller publishers, the platforms could provide true life support to make sure that news deserts and other underserved areas have thriving news organizations.

Facebook’s Baby Steps

Already, Facebook is developing a way to help people subscribe to news orgs via Instant Articles, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The feature is being developed for the mobile Facebook app, and Facebook would like to create a metered model where readers get a certain number of articles free before having to pay up.

But the devil is in the details. Facebook might want to take a cut of the purchases if people pay for content on Facebook. And setting up a meter would have to be variable as some sites have more severe paywalls than others. For instance, the Washington Post, and New York Times have more forgiving walls than the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times.

And yet, this is a problem that really must be solved for the small and medium-sized publishers whose life could depend on these subscriptions.

“Helping news publishers get paid for their digital content is arguably the most meaningful help that Facebook could provide to global journalism,” Lenfest Institute CEO Jim Friedlich told the Journal. “If Facebook truly creates a successful platform for the sale of news subscriptions at scale it will be a powerful and historic game changer for the news industry.”

Google’s ‘Funding Choices’ and Roundtable Chat

Google definitely has a head-start on Facebook when it comes to working with publishers of all sizes. Its Google News Lab has been providing training and tools for newsrooms for a few years. But its early efforts in driving payments to publishers have been underwhelming so far.

In 2015, Google launched Contributor to give publishers a way to offer options to visitors. They could either disable your ad-blocker or pay a per-page fee for your visit without ads. But that effort was scuttled for a new version of Contributor this month that includes “Funding Choices,” a similar message crafted by publishers to give people the same choice as before: Pay up or turn off that ad-blocker. Users can buy a $5 pass and then pay as they visit these sites.

But Google can do more. At a recent Platforms + Publishers private roundtable that I produced at Google’s office in Chicago, one of the most popular breakout groups was around driving subscriptions to smaller publishers – including donations to non-profits. Some ideas  discussed include a potential Chrome extension for donations; and a product called “AMP Revenues” or “AMP Donate” that could drive payments from within Google AMP. And with the data that Google has on potential customers, they could partner to help publishers identify future subscribers.

Why It’s Worth the Challenge

Helping publishers drive subscriptions and donations isn’t an impossible challenge for the tech giants, but it is a challenge. Every publisher has its own kind of paywall, its own membership structure, its own tiers of paid content and services. There’s very little that’s standard, and there are a million different small publishers out there. Not to mention the issues that platforms have just identifying who is trustworthy and not polluting the web with spam and fake news.

However, there are associations that can help the tech companies work with small and local players, including the Local Media Consortium, National Association of Broadcasters, Local Independent Online News Publishers, Institute for Nonprofit News and, of course, Digital Content Next, though it skews bigger.

Sound Reasons Why

Here’s a roundup of reasons why this is worth the effort for platforms:

  • Google wants to organize the world’s information, and if it truly wants quality information from all over the country, all over the world, it will have to help identify and help keep the ecosystem of smaller players healthy. Driving revenues to those players, whether through ads or subscriptions, makes sense for everyone’s bottom line.
  • The platforms have already built relationships with the publishers on so many fronts – around ad-blocking and ad quality, mobile speed, fact-checking – that making a bigger investment in subscriptions will only deepen those relationships and build more trust.
  • Even though there’s a feeling that putting up a paywall will only remove the content from platforms, or send them off the social networks, the reality is that subscription sites still depend on engagement, comments and community (think Facebook Groups) on social media.
  • The tech giants in Silicon Valley already have to contend with enough bad PR, and even global anti-trust concerns, so at the very least this will show that they care about the little guy and gal, the non-profit, the hyper-local, the metro daily.

And speaking of PR, we all know that when Facebook and Google talk about developing new ways to help publishers, we all roll our eyes and wonder if it’s all just for show. On the subject of subscriptions and paid content, this is a chance for the platforms to show that they aren’t all talk and no action. Supporting publishers could make a lasting difference.

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